Renowned community philanthropist and real estate developer George Ow Jr. will be honored for his philanthropic work Thursday with the first annual “Tony Hill Award.”
The community service award was named for Hill, a long-time community activist who fought for social justice in communities throughout Santa Cruz County.
“I’m greatly honored,” Ow said. “Tony was one of my best friends. Getting an award having to do with him is a pleasure and an honor. Since he was my friend, we had many of the same viewpoints.”
Ow is a well-known real estate developer and investor in Santa Cruz County. He is perhaps better known for his philanthropy, and has actively worked to increase literacy in the Pajaro Valley. He is a founder of On the Same Page, an organization established last year to use literature to inspire Pajaro Valley students, their parents and the community as a whole.
He has also awarded numerous “American Dream” scholarships to high school students from Watsonville.
“He has really nurtured young leadership and civic engagement in the community,” said Karina Cervantez, co-chair of the Pajaro Valley Cesar Chavez Democratic Club.
Additionally, Ow promotes job growth in Watsonville by taking old buildings and encouraging businesses to come in. These businesses include Fox Racing Shox and Happy Tours. He estimates the efforts have added more than 900 jobs to the area.
“George is basically a humanitarian,” longtime friend Elias Alonzo said. “He will champion any cause with art, education, libraries and job creation.”
Ow has also been instrumental in the establishment of the Agricultural History Project display that will be housed in the city’s new public library.
Though Ow could list dozens of things he’s done in the community, he was quick to share the credit with the people he works with.
“Everything I do is in conjunction with a lot of people,” he said. “If I didn’t have them, it wouldn’t be as much fun.”
As one of his proudest accomplishments, Ow listed the creation of On the Same Page. The program has brought Latino authors Victor Villasenor and Francisco Jiminez to Watsonville schools.
“I think their stories are inspirational for anyone, but especially for Watsonville, since so many of the young people are Latino,” he said.
The Tony Hill Award is presented to community members who have made gains in social justice in the Pajaro Valley.
Hill was a supporter of the PVCCDC, and helped to build alliances with Latinos and other residents of the Pajaro Valley, Cervantez said.
Hill died in 2007 at age 62, and the PVCCDC established the award in his honor. The award will be presented by Hill’s wife, Melanie Stern-Hill.
The night will also feature the 20th anniversary celebration of a landmark civil rights case that changed the face of voting in Watsonville, and paved the way for similar decisions throughout California.
The 1988 case Dolores Cruz Gomez v. the City of Watsonville challenged “at-large” elections when it was discovered that Latino voters were underrepresented in local government. With the Latino population at 50 percent, no Latinos sat on the City Council.
The case upended the existing system and set the stage for the present one, in which the city is separated into seven districts, each with its own elected representative. The case has been cited several time in various civil rights cases, most recently in June in a case out of Modesto.
“It allowed people to be represented by someone with their interests at heart,” community activist and attorney Luis Alejo said. “It allowed Latinos to be elected. Today, we have a City Council that is more reflective of the demographics of Watsonville.”
The celebration will feature Joaquin Avila, the lead attorney on the case, and activist Dolorez Cruz Gomez, the lead plaintiff in the case.
The $35 tickets for the civil rights dinner and Tony Hill Award presentation dinner at the Green Valley Grill on Thursday night have sold out.
(Published in 8/20/08 edition)
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